Whales were the topic one recent morning in Maria Kenney’s
classroom at Passaic’s School No. 2, but the lesson was as much about
language as undersea life.

Pointing to a picture of a whale the students had “adopted” as a
class conservation project, Kenney alternated rapidly between Spanish
and English, skipping in mid-sentence from one to the other. Her 10
second-graders responded eagerly, some in English, some in Spanish, and
some in a little of both.

“If I taught everything in English, 70 percent of the children
would have no idea what I was talking about,” Kenney said.

Like a majority of students in this urban school district, Kenney’s
students are Hispanic and their native language is Spanish. It’s no
surprise, then, that programs for students with limited English skills
play a major role in the district’s educational strategy.

Passaic has met the challenge of educating its large Latino
population, as well as other immigrant groups, mainly through full-time
bilingual education classes, where students study most of their subjects
in their native language while gradually switching to English. The
district also offers various alternatives, including part-time bilingual
programs and English as a Second Language.

The school district has 6,875 students whose native language is not
English, and 3,184 students with limited English proficiency. Passaic’s
roughly 10,000 students come from 40 countries and speak 24 languages.

Nearly 80 percent of the students are Latin American.

Out of a total budget of $ 89 million, Passaic expects to spend
nearly $ 8 million in federal, state, and local tax money on the two
programs during the current school year. All but $ 162,000 of that money
will go for staff salaries, including more than 150 teachers.

When legislators begin to debate changes in the state laws
governing bilingual education, Passaic may be one district lawmakers
look at to see whether the current system works.

Those involved with the program, including parents and students,
say that it does, up to a point. They all agree there is room for
improvement, an assessment echoed in state-mandated evaluation reports.

Others offer harsher assessments. In recent years, city residents
have criticized the district’s bilingual program on several grounds,
with some charging that it is designed more to provide jobs than to give
students high-quality instruction. Supporters say such criticism
reflects an anti-immigrant bias.

Among the program’s opponent’s is Board of Education President
Vincent Capuana.

“The way it is set up, bilingual education will never work,”
Capuana said. “I think it’s the worst way to teach a
non-English-speaking student the language.”

Capuana said he favors the old-school method of immediate
submersion into the mainstream.

“I came here from Italy when I was 10 years old,” Capuana said. “I
learned to speak English in six months. Our kids are lingering in the
system for too long and they wind up using it as a crutch, rather than a

Passaic’s bilingual classes, like others, suffer from severe
crowding and an insufficient number of teachers. Officials say those
factors are partly to blame for students remaining in the program well
beyond the expected three years.

Bilingual/ESL Supervisor Nicholas Calamusa said most students leave
the program in three or four years, but some do remain for as long as
six or seven years. Officials estimate that 300 to 400 students move out
of the program every year, with three times that number coming in
because of an increase in immigration.

“When you have a 3,000-student population, you can’t really say
that we have many who stay in the program longer than they should,”
Calamusa said. “It’s because the program is offered in all grades, that
many people have the misconception that a student enters the program in
elementary school and continues through four years of high school.”

Maria Moreno, who came to Passaic from the Dominican Republic at
15, valued Passaic’s bilingual program.

“It was really hard, but the bilingual program made the difference
for me,” Moreno said. “It helped with the transition, and with acquiring
not only the language but also the American culture.”

Passaic’s bilingual program allowed Moreno to take academic classes
with Spanish-speaking bilingual teachers, besides two daily English
classes. By her senior year, several of her classes were in English.

She stayed in bilingual classes for a couple of particularly tough
subjects, including U.S. history, that she needed to graduate.

After graduating on time, two-and-a-half years after moving to
America, she went on to Kean College to study to become a teacher. This
year, she became a full-time third-grade bilingual teacher at Passaic’s
School No. 7.. A review team from the U.S. Department of Education is evaluating
Passaic’s bilingual education program to see if the district is
providing an equal, quality education for all students.

Passaic officials said they expect the federal reviewers to demand
an increase in bilingual special education and gifted and talented
programs, and to provide more college preparation and personal
counseling for bilingual students.

“We are providing some of those areas, but it’s an area of weakness
we know that we need to enhance,” Calamusa said.

Passaic has 2,975 students with limited proficiency in English
whose native language was Spanish, 118 whose native language was
Gujarati, 35 Polish, and nine Arabic. Some of the Gujariti speakers are
in full-time bilingual classes, while others are in alternative
programs. The Polish and Arabic students are in English as a Second
Language classes.

Enrollment in bilingual education is highest in the lower grades,
with 470 bilingual students in kindergarten and fewer than 100 in 12th
grade, district data show.

The high school also offers Spanish-speaking students
post-graduate and other counseling in their native language, as well as
classes in pre-calculus, computer literacy, and biology.

All students who enroll in the district are given a survey to
determine what language is spoken at home. If any language other than
English is spoken, the student is given a state language proficiency
test. A standardized scale determines whether a student needs bilingual

“It is very rare that a student is misplaced,” said Marie Iuolo, the district’s enrollment coordinator.< But she admits that it can

Former school trustee Mary Guzman said her granddaughter was one of
the unlucky ones.

“I am 100 percent for bilingual education, but when they placed
Annette Guzman, 6 in bilingual, I fought the board and the
administration as hard as I could.” And she eventually won.

Annette Guzman entered a pre-K, English-only class, but failed the
test for kindergarten English proficiency.

“She didn’t speak fluent English, but spoke enough to get by,”
Guzman said. “She is now passing up other monolingual kids in her

Only one of Regina Tlatenchi’s eight children was placed in a
bilingual kindergarten program and tested out after one year. The
outspoken Mexican native said Passaic’s bilingual program is essential
to a quality education for any non-English-speaking student.

Tlatenchi, assistant corresponding secretary for the district’s
bilinugal education parent advisory council, said many parents come to
her with problems about the program. But she said that once the problem
is resolved, most agree that bilingual education works.

“It is a very good program,” Tlatenchi said. “It enables students
to move into regular instruction, but maintain both languages. Being
multilingual is an asset in today’s multiethnic workplace.”

Staff Writer Karen Levey contributed to this article.

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